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Bloodshed At Dawn
Should Commodore Barron have surrendered his ship? Should Decatur have criticised him? Their famous duel ended in … bloodshed at dawn
October 1964 | Volume 15, Issue 6
In all innocence Barron stopped to receive Humphries’ letter, and then it was too late. The Chesapeake was tinder the Leopard ’s guns, and could not possibly escape without a battle. It can be argued that even as he read Humphries’ demand for the return of the deserters, Barron did not—or could not—believe that Humphries would proceed to the ultimate extremity. British ships had been known, only too often, to fire into neutral merchant ships that were slow in obeying signals—it was their right if the ship they wished to examine endeavored to escape—but it was still inconceivable that Leopard would actually fire into Chesapeake . Barron may well have thought that the reply that he sent was a formal refusal to a formal demand, setting up a situation that the diplomats could argue about later. Having sent his refusal lie requested his captain—Master Commandant Gordon—to send his men to quarters and clear lor action; he may even have believed that this was one more formal move in a formal game, comparable with the Leopard ’s gesture in opening her ports.
Then the unbelievable happened; Leopard was close alongside, with only twenty yards separating the ships, and at that range she fired her broadside. It could have been an accident, but Barron on his quarterdeck could hear through the smoke the orders given by the Leopard ’s divisional officers and then the rumble of the gun trucks as the gun muzzles came out through the ports again, and then came another broadside, and then a third. Twenty-one members of the crew of the Chesapeake — about five per cent—were killed or wounded. The Chesapeake was in no condition to fight back. So little had been done toward clearing for action that the galley fire was still alight, and Lieutenant William Henry Alien, third of the ship, took an ember and with it fired a gun in return, the only reply that Chesapeake could make (for the powder horns for priming were not yet filled); and then Barron realized at last that the unbelievable had happened, and he hauled down his colors. A boarding party from the Leopard mustered the crew, searched the ship, and took away four deserters. Barron tried to insist that Chesapeake was a prize of war, but Humphries ignored the suggestion. He had been engaged in an ordinary police operation, and not in an act of war. Barron could only limp back to Norfolk, while the Leopard —this is not the least fantastic part of a fantastic story—quietly sailed back between the Capes and dropped anchor again in United Stales waters.
The American government was lurious about the outrage; the American Navy was lurious about the surrender. The very next day a petition signed by halt a dozen of the officers of the Chesapeake , was addressed to the Secretary of the Navy requesting Barren’s arrest and trial. By the end of the year a court-martial was assembled. The court specifically cleared Barron of all the graver charges. He was found not guilty of cowardice or disaffection, a verdict that implied that the surrender was neither unnecessary nor even premature. But Barron was found guilty of neglecting to clear his ship for action, arid as a result he was sentenced to five years’ suspension, ft was a savage sentence and a terrible humiliation, the more terrible because Barron was convinced that it was undeserved.
The verdict, and Barren’s defense, call for a little analysis. The Chesapeake had sailed from Norfolk intending to join the American squadron in the Mediterranean. That squadron was endeavoring to maintain itself without a base, and three thousand or more miles from home, in a sea fought over by warring navies. Nearly everything the squadron needed had to be sent from America, and the Chesapeake was crammed with naval stores as a result. America was neutral—almost the sole neutral in an embattled world—and her ships of war could sail without the necessity of being instantly ready for action. When Barron stood out to sea and saw that the Leopard was preceding him, what was he expected to do? Throw overboard the stores so painfully taken on board the day before? He could not believe that he would have to fight; if—only one of the two hypotheses seemed to be tenable—the Leopard was sailing on her lawful occasions, or if she was intending to make a mere formal demand, he would be laughed at as an alarmist at the subsequent inquiry. He had no reason whatever to expect violent action on the part of the Leopard . He had received no hint, no warning, from the Department of State or the Department of the Navy. Cluttered up as the Chesapeake was, she would only have experienced further useless losses if she had prolonged her resistance. Under the fire of the Leopard she could never have cleared for action; clearing for action before the Leopard ’s intentions were revealed seemed to Barron quite unnecessary.